|By Jia Hepeng
Europe and China are moving closer together, but key issues remain unsolved after Premier Wen Jiabao's recent visit to five European countries.
"It can be clearly seen from Wen's successful visit that European countries now have more positive attitudes towards Chinese trade and investment, as well as in regard to finding solutions to bilateral disputes such as lifting some technical trade barriers," said Shi Shiwei, a senior researcher at the China-EU (European Union) Economic Research Centre under the Beijing-based University of International Business and Economics (UIBE).
"But the disputes such as acknowledging China's market economy status (MES) and lifting the ban on arms sales to China cannot be solved overnight."
>>From May 2 to 12, Wen visited Germany, Italy, Belgium, Britain and Ireland, where he also met EU leaders.
The 10-day visit, which was the premier's first trip to Europe since he took office last year, was highly productive because of the signing of strategic partnerships and economic and trade deals.
It consolidates China's relationship with the European bloc after President Hu Jintao was also strongly welcomed by top French business people during a January visit.
The EU was China's third-largest trade partner in 2002.
"After the EU's enlargement, the new EU will become China's largest trade partner," said Franz Jessen, deputy head of the EU Delegation in China.
On May 1, the EU absorbed the Czech Republic, Estonia, Cyprus, Latvia, Lithuania, Hungary, Malta, Poland, Slovenia and Slovakia.
However, during his trip, the premier did not receive final and decisive answers to the two questions that were topping his agenda: China's MES recognition within the EU and the resumption of arms sales to China.
The EU approval of China's MES within the World Trade Organization (WTO) will assist both China and the European bloc, Wen told a joint press conference at the end of a two-day visit to the EU's headquarters.
European Commission President Romano Prodi said a preliminary judgment on China's MES could come next month.
But experts say a preliminary judgment will be far from what China really wants: immediate recognition of its MES.
The present situation makes it hard for Chinese manufacturers to defend themselves against foreign lawsuits where they are accused of dumping their products.
Foreign alternatives are used as examples in lawsuits, which are commonly places with higher production costs.
Meng Xiaolei, deputy secretary of the China International Institute of Multinational Corporations, said the EU only sees the negatives in the Chinese economy instead of the progress it has made, which makes it maintain the non-MES stance.
He admitted that some State-owned companies were enjoying beneficial taxes and other treatment.
But he said the Chinese authorities have done a lot to improve the situation.
Chinese traders complain that the EU recognizes the MES of Russia, a non-WTO member whose market development has been surpassed by China.
However, Zhang Hanlin, director of the Academy of WTO Research under UIBE, says the EU has picked up the pace of its evaluation of China's MES, despite the reluctance.
It will be accepted before the 15 years as agreed under WTO membership, he said.
During Wen's visit to Germany, German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, following French President Jacques Chirac, said Germany supports the move to lift the EU's 15-year arms sales ban on China.
But despite the recent pressure from France and Germany, Prodi said no agreement on the matter was likely any time soon.
The major problem was the influence being exerted by the US, which shows it is still very difficult for Sino-European relations to stand independent of the United States, Shi said.
The ASEAN-China FTA, the world's largest which covers 1.7 billion consumers with a combined gross domestic product of US$2 trillion, will start in 2010.
Bo signed an agreement with Yeo for Singapore's entry to the China-Thailand trade arrangement on vegetables and fruit, which provides zero tariff for the two categories.
By Dai Yan
Bo held talks with six foreign trade heads, including Chilean Foreign Minister Soledad Alvear, US trade representative Robert Zoellick, Australian Trade Minister Mark Vaile, Singaporean Trade Minister George Yeo, Thai Commerce Minister Watana Muangsook and Mexican Secretary of Economy Fernando Canales.
During his meeting with Zoellick, Bo urged the United States to take concrete moves regarding China's MES.
Bo said he believed an early solution to the problem would help create a good trade environment between the two countries.
On WTO talks, Bo told Zoellick that China is willing to co-operate with the United States to achieve a breakthrough before the end of July.
The APEC ministerial meeting was held in Pucon, Chile from June 4 to 5, focusing on trade liberalization.
Trade ministers from 21 APEC economies gathered in Pucon to move forward new talks of the Doha Round of WTO talks, which are scheduled for July in Geneva.
The Doha Round is scheduled to be completed by January 2005.
Bo said China will play an active role in talks though it is suffering from pressure because of its non-market economy status and specific safeguard measures, particularly on textiles.
When talking with Vaile from Australia and Alvear from Chile, Bo asked them to recognize China's MES at an earlier date.
"We expect the two countries to acknowledge China as a market economy as soon as possible in order to create an important condition for FTA negotiations," Bo said.
Bo received an active response on the issue when talking with Watana from Thailand.
New Zealand, Singapore and Malaysia- have already granted China MES.
Besides that status, free trade agreements were a key point in Bo's meetings.
Bo said China is ready to accelerate feasibility studies on free trade agreements with Chile and Australia.
The China-Chile feasibility study on FTA, kicked off in April, may possibly finish before November, Bo said.
When meeting Yeo from Singapore and Watana from Thailand, Bo said the negotiation for a China-Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) FTA is expected to conclude by June 30.
"Negotiations are going smoothly and have reached a basic consensus on the trade arrangement," Bo said.
"China will try its best to address special concerns of ASEAN members," Bo said.